Monday, August 26, 2013

Who Says It’s a Do-Nothing Congress?

All we historic preservation fans can take delight in the fact that H.R. 2617 has been introduced in the House of Representatives.  As the national historic preservation program dribbles off to nothing, as communities and indigenous groups across the nation struggle to protect their historic neighborhoods and traditional cultural landscapes from the untrammeled forces of economic and energy development, H.R. 2617 has as its purpose – yes, ladies and gentlemen, it has as its purpose to create a national historic landmark (NHL) at Tranquility Base on the Moon.
I wrote about the idiocy of this proposition back in 2010 when the historic preservation authorities of several states began thumping their chests about it (See “California Shoots for the Moon,”  I don’t propose to write more about it, but have asked for the opportunity to testify against it should the House take time off from voting down Obamacare to hold a hearing.

Friday, August 23, 2013

My Latest Publication

Sadly, I don't know what it says, either.  Probably something like "Proceedings of the 2011 World Archaeological Congress Intercongresss on Archaeological Heritage Management in Asia, Beijing 2011."  I'll let you know when I find out.  Published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  It includes my paper on "Cultural Heritage, Environmental Impact Assessment, and People," in English.  I have copies of the paper (not the book) that I can share if anyone's interested.

Thanks a Lot, Mr. Responsible SHPO

So, I’m trying to advise some federal agency officials about compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), and learn that one of them has written to a State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) saying:
“We’ve decided to demolish Building X (a late 19th century building, part of an institutional historic district).  Will you please tell us who our reviewing officer will be, so we can provide the proper paperwork?”

Urgh, I thought.  They’ve put their foot in it, I thought.
But maybe it’s a teachable moment, I thought.  When the SHPO writes back and tells them that it ain’t compliant with Section 106 to decide to demolish a historic building and then ask the SHPO what forms to submit, maybe I’ll have their attention and can gently explain what Section 106 and its regulations really require – and maybe even that there’s another legal requirement or two they ought to think about, like Section 111.

Then the SHPO responds: “Thanks a lot, your reviewer will be Joe Schlabotnik, and we look forward to working with you.”
Well done, SHPO; what a fine job you're doing of fulfilling your educational mission and representing your state’s interests in historic preservation.  And I wonder where you'll be found when and if somebody in the community sues the agency for violating Sections 106, maybe 110, and 111 of NHPA.

And plaudits to the National Park Service (NPS), which funds the SHPOs, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) which oversees Section 106 review, for keeping the SHPOs on their toes.
The mind boggles……

Monday, August 19, 2013

Theories of Significance

In starting work on the second edition of my 2003 book Places That Count (, I've come upon a section that I recall thinking to be rather insightful when I wrote it.  Since it's evoked no discussion that I know of, I suppose I was misleading myself, but I thought I'd post it here to see what responses (if any) it may evoke.

Theories of Significance in U.S. Historic Preservation

The National Register criteria were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as one part of the “system” put in place by the National Park Service and Advisory Council to implement the newly enacted National Historic Preservation Act. This system is designed, in theory, to ensure the fair, systematic consideration—and, where feasible, the preservation and enhancement—of places regarded as historically significant. One thing that makes this system rather unsystematic, I think, is that it tries to accommodate at least six distinct “theories of significance”—that is, six quite different worldviews within which people evaluate the significance of old places. This is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed it reflects a hurly-burly sort of creative ferment. What is a problem is that most people adhere to one or two such theories only and have trouble understanding that there may be others or that other theories may be legitimate. This lack of understanding is exacerbated by the fact that the theories have never—except here—been explicitly categorized.

Perhaps the most venerable is the commemoration and illustration theory, which holds that places are historic when they commemorate or illustrate some important historical event, process, or theme. This theory undergirds the National Historic Landmark (NHL) program created by the National Park Service in response to the Historic Sites Act of 1935.  Within this theoretical frame, significance is judged based on the strength of a property’s association with an event (e.g., a battle), a significant historical process (e.g., industrialization), or a specific “theme” or interpretive construct (e.g., “Man in Space”), together with the importance of the event or theme itself and the property’s ability to “convey” this association to a viewer. The commemoration and illustration theory is pedagogical; it seeks to use historic places to inform the public about that which is worthy of being commemorated or illustrated.

Closely related to commemoration and illustration is the uniqueness-representativeness school, which espouses the seemingly contradictory notions that places are significant if they are either one-of-a-kind, last-ditch survivors, representatives of a type, or both. Uniqueness-representativeness practitioners are usually architectural historians, landscape historians, historians of engineering, or military historians. Their school of thought, like commemoration and illustration, was embedded in the nation’s perception of historic preservation by the 1935 Historic Sites Act. The 1935 act not only resulted in the NHL program with commemoration and illustration at its core; it also made permanent the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and led to creation of the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and later the Historic American Landscapes Survey. These documentation programs are all about recording the unique and the representative among works of architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture.

Competing with commemoration and illustration and uniqueness-representativeness in the venerability department is the scholarly value school of thought, which holds that a place is significant if it can be studied to learn something important about the past. The scholarly value school arguably goes back to before the 1906 Antiquities Act, when the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology conducted government-sponsored archaeological research in the Mississippi Valley, the Southwest, and elsewhere.  Like commemoration and illustration, the scholarly value school seeks to inform, but where advocates of commemoration and illustration value what can inform the public of what it does not know but scholars do, scholarly value practitioners attribute significance to places that can inform scholars about what they do not know. Scholarly value also overlaps with uniqueness-representativeness, but where uniqueness-representativeness is usually the province of various history subdisciplines, scholarly value tends to be practiced by archaeologists—who in the United States are (or at least are supposed to be) anthropologists. Moreover, the scholarly value theory seeks to tease information out of places, while uniqueness-representativeness is often satisfied simply to record and preserve them.

A fourth and newer theoretical approach may be thought of as the ambience retention school. Ambience retention adherents recognize that certain places—often urban neighborhoods or commercial districts, but also rural landscapes, agricultural areas, and the like—convey a distinct and valuable sense of place that is recognizable and valued by most people—notably people who do not necessarily live in the places thus valued. Many historic districts have been established because of their ambience, and it is often a major challenge to retain that ambience in rehabilitating and adapting historic districts to a changing world.

A related but nonetheless distinct school of thought is the kitsch school, which holds that a place is significant if it reflects some perhaps obscure but interesting or amusing aspect of popular history and culture. Practitioners of the kitsch school value places like drive-ins and motels along old Route 66.

Finally, there is what I think can best be called the community value school, which sees a place as significant if it is valued by a living community. Such value may be ascribed to something because community members feel it contributes to the community’s sense of its identity, its cultural integrity, or its relationships with the biophysical—and sometimes spiritual—environment. TCPs are obviously significant primarily within this school of thought, which I believe found its legislative expression in 1966 in the National Historic Preservation Act.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


My long-time friend, colleague, and one-time business manager Ron Melander is being evicted – or more correctly, squeezed out – of his rented residence on a ridge overlooking Fort Ross in Sonoma County, California.  I think it’s a shame, and wish I could find him a place to live. 

For some months a number of us have been trying to help him find a place, keeping it quiet out of respect for his privacy, but the situation has now escalated, and frustration drives me to go public.  Both for Ron’s sake and because his situation, sadly, is one that a lot of people practicing “shovel-bum” archaeology today ought to anticipate and prepare for.
Not that Ron was ever exactly a shovel-bum.  I met him at San Francisco State University decades ago when we were both anthropology students there.  He went on to manage the archaeology lab at U.C. Santa Barbara, where he was something of a mentor to archaeologists like Shelly Davis-King (no relation), Joe Tainter, Bob Hitchcock and Larry Spanne.  He quit as a matter of principle during the student revolt at UCSB against the Viet Nam War; Ron supported the students and wouldn’t continue as an employee of “the Man.” 

When we both wound up back in northern California and I organized a small consulting firm, Ron became my indispensable right-hand man, business manager, chief cook and bottle washer, guitarist and music composer.  He remained when I fled California for New York, DC, and points-elsewhere, working for the folks who inherited my company and then for others, and playing in various bands.  He went back to college and got into paleontology, doing a remarkable paleontological survey of Point Reyes National Park.  Eventually he retired to his ridge overlooking the Pacific, where he’s gotten by on Social Security and odd jobs – painting and grass cutting – until now.
The land on which Ron’s rental and several others stand is owned by the Soper-Wheeler Company, a large land and timber outfit.  A few months ago Soper-Wheeler advised all the tenants that their rentals were at an end, and gave them set times within which to make other arrangements and depart the premises.  Ron has vigorously searched for new digs; his daughter, son, and several of his old friends and colleagues have been trying to help.  On July 1 I sent the following letter to the president of Soper-Wheeler (Some particulars removed to protect privacy):

Dear Mr. Soper:

I am one of several colleagues and friends of Ron Melander who are trying to help him find a new place to live now that you are evicting him from the cabin off ______ that he has rented for the last several years.  Unsurprisingly given the value of land and housing in the area, neither he nor we have yet been successful.

I question neither your right to evict Mr. Melander nor your rationale for doing so; I am writing only to request that you be flexible about implementing your decision.  I visited him last week and found him packed up and resigned to departing, but as yet, despite our best collective efforts, he has no place to go.  Particularly considering the efforts he has made over the years to keep the premises clean and – especially importantly – to control the exuberant and flammable plant life (now growing rather alarmingly around both houses), it would seem an elementary act of kindness on your part to let him remain in the cabin for a few more months while we all help him seek new quarters.


I received no response, and as of yesterday the water and power to Ron’s rental had been cut off.
I post this in the hope that someone in Sonoma County or its environs has a low-cost place that Ron might rent; if so, please contact me at  And I guess I post it too as a warning to youngsters in archaeology.  You too will, like Ron and me, grow old, and you need to have a thought for your future.  I offer this not as discouragement but as a caution; we live in unsympathetic times, and the decisions we take in our youth reverberate through our declining years.

Monday, August 12, 2013

National Register Bulletin 38 is Doomed

Twenty-three years ago, the National Register of Historic Places published National Register Bulletin 38, on the identification, evaluation, and documentation of “traditional cultural properties” (TCPs).  Patricia Parker and I had authored the bulletin a couple of years earlier; the story of its creation comprises Chapter Two of my 2003 Places That Count ( 
We wrote NRB 38 to counteract a trend then apparent in American historic preservation – the devaluation of places valued by communities in favor of those valued by professional elites (notably architectural historians and archaeologists).  Archaeological sites and buildings of architectural interest were being afforded all the (admittedly dubious) protections of federal law, while traditional neighborhoods and places of spiritual significance to tribes and Native Hawaiians were given short shrift.  NRB 38 has done some good in leveling the playing field; tribes have made particularly skillful use of it in litigation.
The National Register is now embarked on a campaign to do something to or with NRB 38.  If its people know what they want to do, or why they want to do it, they are not sharing this intelligence with the rest of us, but they are earnestly holding webinars at which they read Powerpoint slides and ask for input. 
Until recently I was more amused than concerned about the Register’s effort; it looked like simply a way for its people to look busy while they wait for retirement and I didn’t think it would amount to much.  After the latest webinar, though – into which I didn’t plug, but about which I’ve heard a good deal from outraged participants – I am much more pessimistic.
There are interests – notably among the extractive industries and in those industries’ traditional handmaidens, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service – who very much dislike NRB 38 and would like to clip its wings.  They’ve grown sufficiently used to archaeology, and co-opted enough archaeologists, to make the identification and handling of archaeological sites a fairly routine matter.  You find them, you draw lines around them, you evaluate them as insignificant if you can, and if any of them are so significant you can’t pretend they’re not, you dig them up.  It costs money sometimes, but it’s predictable; it seldom raises issues that can actually threaten your plans.   Old buildings are usually even easier to manage; find them, document their architecture, knock them down or move them away.  All this can usually be worked out with the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), with minimum involvement by anyone less tractable. 
TCPs are different; they’re often quite large (whole mountains, lakes, landscapes, seascapes) and ill-bounded, and their values are perceived mostly by plain people, in more or less local communities.    These people tend not to want their special places to be screwed up, and they’re seldom as easy or cheap to buy off as are archaeologists or architectural historians, or as easy to flim-flam as is the average SHPO.  So it would be easier to put in mines, railroads, solar farms, wind farms, power plants and transmission lines if TCPs were not regarded as eligible for the National Register.  Failing that, it would benefit the industries and simplify the lives of agency bureaucrats and SHPOs if the rules for recognizing a TCP could be made more like those for recognizing an archaeological site.  If, for example, it were necessary to establish hard and fast boundaries, show that there are physical expressions of something “cultural” (artifacts, structures) on the ground, document that people have been using the place consistently for over fifty years for some professionally definable cultural purpose.
And this, I now fear, is what the National Registrars will do – not with any particular malice, but because they’re just too inexperienced, too gullible, too naïve to recognize what’s wrong with such notions.  They’ve made it very clear that they think it quite inappropriate, even impossible, to consider the real world implications of what they do.  Think about how a tweak here and a tinker there will play out in land use planning, or environmental review?  No, no, that’s for people like the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to think about; what the National Register does is – well, register stuff. 
So what they’re likely to do is tweak and tinker with NRB 38 to make it more like some of their other bulletins, tightly oriented toward how to fill out nomination forms.  On page X, in block Y, select from the following three options: M, N, or O.  I can imagine, too, an effort to define words like “community” to exclude any group that isn’t or can’t be somehow formally recognized by officialdom.  So the Big Sky Historical Society can have TCPs but an informal group of cattle ranchers can’t; so a federally recognized tribe can but an unrecognized tribe can’t. 
The result will be to make it harder – if not impossible – for a community or tribe to get its special places recognized as Register-eligible, and hence deserving of consideration under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).  This narrow-mindedness will inevitably bleed over into practice under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal and state laws.  No matter that the place is of deep cultural importance to people on the ground; if you can’t fill out the nomination form the way the registrars want it filled out, and justify its importance in the esoteric language of history, archaeology, or maybe cultural anthropology, your place just doesn’t qualify.  This may generate business for certain specialized consultants, but it will do nothing for the places that tribes and other communities hold dear. 
Nor will it do anything for the National Register’s relevance to the real world, but I doubt if that’s important to the Register’s staff; they like irrelevance; it’s a safe condition.
Several commenters have told NPS what would actually be helpful.  Don’t focus on the clerical niceties of nomination; instead advise government agencies and other change agents about how to address TCPs in planning and decision making.  Take it as given that if a place is important to a community – including a self-defined community – it’s the obligation of a government that’s supposed to be by and for the people to give that place careful consideration before doing something to it.  Talk with the people who value it, deliberate with them about ways to protect its significance while realizing whatever public interest is served by the decisions that will affect it.  See what can be done to put such protections in place and make them work.
But that kind of thing, the registrars point out, isn’t their game; it’s supposedly the game of the ACHP.  Fair enough, though the ACHP has largely abandoned the field of play.  So maybe the registrars ought to talk with the ACHP, maybe share the effort.  Or maybe they should satisfy themselves with clarifying a few unfortunate word choices and dated assumptions in the Bulletin and leave any further guidance on the subject to the ACHP, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) or some other entity that actually relates to reality.  I don’t expect them to exercise such broadmindedness or restraint, however.  They have convinced themselves that the National Register is the indispensable centerpiece of the nation’s historic preservation program, so only they can correct NRB 38’s deficiencies – whatever they are.

A number of people have asked me what they can do about the Register’s threatened fixes – besides filing eloquent comments, as many have done, and waiting for them to be misunderstood, ignored, or both.  The only recommendation I’ve been able to come up with is to take the matter up with higher levels in the Department of the Interior food chain.  I don’t know that this is a particularly hopeful option – the Obama administration has done little but disappoint in matters like this – but it is just possible that if the Secretary of the Interior were made aware of what is being done in her name by her minions at the National Register, her people would give the registrars a little adult oversight.  Of course, the Secretary is under orders from our keen-minded president to “greenlight” energy projects on the public lands, and hang the environmental laws, so expecting responsibility from her for the cultural environment is probably a fruitless enterprise.  What’s sad is that there’s not necessarily a conflict between energy development and taking care of the places that matter to people.  What creates conflict are government policies that encourage change agents to ignore the impacts of their actions on anything their own experts can’t weigh and measure using finely calibrated professional (or other) procedures – regardless of what those affected think is important.  People who value places that professional practitioners can't appreciate or registrars assign easly to pigeonholes are left with nothing to do but fume, demonstrate, and litigate.  NRB 38 was designed to help create conditions in which such conflicts could be identified early and resolved by consensus; what the registrars seem to be about will, I fear, have the opposite effect.